Nonfiction by Theresa Wisner
The first swell of the Pacific lifts the hull of the sixty-foot troller beneath me. My Dramamine is working. I sit on the cover of the fish hold as we ride the second surge, the whistle buoy sounding to warn incoming vessels of landfall. The air percolates salt.
A downdraft of diesel joins the third swell, just at its zenith. I stand. I sit. I stand and wobble to the side rail.
On the fifth surge, I heave half my breakfast over the side, then the other half. Now dry air. My stomach is stuck on spin cycle, churning even after every drop of moisture has been wrung.
Phil comes to the back deck. “Why don’t you go on below? There’s nothing to do but drive until we get to the tuna grounds.” He points to a white, five-gallon bucket and smiles, not unkindly.
Lying in my bunk, I pray for a man overboard drill. I’ll be the man. I’ll jump over and swim as far as I can and hope Phil never finds me.
Most of the next six days I’m in my berth and that bucket is my partner. I stagger up the ladder to pee or to stand watch for a few hours while Phil sleeps. With the Valhalla on autopilot, ‘stand watch’ means sitting in the captain’s chair and opening my eyes every fifteen minutes or so to make sure we aren’t in the path of a tanker.
This boat is not my friend. She falls into the trough and I lag a half an inch behind her until she begins her ascent. My prone body meets her and pounds into the too-thin mattress. The wooden planks that separate me from miles and miles of cold salt water creak and groan until I’m sure they will split.
But I wake one morning and the queasiness is gone. The ocean continues to flatten, and it’s now a pool of boundless cyan. I’ve found a sense of calm, and the beginning of this idea that I belong here. I’m connected to the sea through the umbilical cord that is the Valhalla. The fish start biting, but more importantly, I’m at peace for the first time I can recall. Ever.
I grow accustomed to the quiet in the few moments before I drift off each night. The noises that once frightened me become a comfort; a lullaby sung through the heart of the wood as the boat sways me gently to sleep. These are the halcyon days of tuna fishing.
On deck, I have few thoughts other than when the line might grow taut from a fish bite, or when to move the fish from the deck to the brine solution in the hold. I’m up long before daylight and asleep well after dark. Each day is cut into pieces: Wake up. Get dressed. Set lines. Cereal. Before morning bite. Morning bite. After morning bite. Brine fish. Lunch. Maybe an afternoon bite. Brine fish. Nap, glorious nap. Back on deck for the possible stray bite. Brine fish. Dinner. Evening bite. Brine fish. Day done. Undress and crawl into my bunk and pass out until Phil fires the engine up the next morning. Start over again.
Between bites, I read or practice songs on deck, waiting for the monofilament to sing the news: “Fish On.” As long as I catch them and brine them, my life is complete. I have no other responsibilities. I’m alone as Phil steers the boat from the wheelhouse, fifty feet away.
I haul tuna halfway up the transom and swing them upward in an arc and back over my shoulder to a hard landing on top of a plywood platform. Most of the time, they’re flopping around. Their mouths open and close like a smoker making rapid-fire smoke rings. The sound of tuna on the deck is like this: Rest your wrist and palm on the top of a table, then tap your hand as fast as you can and pretend twenty of your friends are in the room with you, doing the same thing. Each hand is a fish. The sound is ecstasy for a fisherman.
I wear gloves at first, but they make me clumsy. After I lose a few fish, I take them off. My hands aren’t accustomed to the bite of the lines, or to being constantly wet. They’re torn and raw, and the salt water dries them out. On the inside joints of my knuckles, I have splits in my skin where the lines dig in. I unconsciously draw my hands closed in my sleep, and each morning I un-freeze them, one mangled finger at a time. When my hands are completely open, I spread them apart and curl them down into a fist, then straighten them out. They hurt. They bite. They sting. After a few mornings of this, I mention something to Phil. He looks and a frown rumples his face. He goes to the wheelhouse and returns with a square, green can. He opens it and has me dig my fingers into a Vicks VapoRub-smelling, yellow-tinged, Vaseline-like substance.
“Bag Balm. It’s for cow udders, but it’s the best medicine for this. Rub it in every night and cover your hands with clean cotton gloves. There’s a few pair in the empty bunk. You should be back to new in a few days.”
Christ. Bag Balm? I’m putting cow medicine on my hands? What am I, a farm girl?
The next morning however, it takes half as long to unfurl my fingers. Day two takes even less.
* * *
The fish are off the bite. Nobody’s catching this morning, and the radio’s silent; nobody wants to talk about not catching. On the deck, I back myself up to the fish hold cover and sit, cross-legged. With nothing better to do, I sing my own rendition of Born To Be Wild. No way anyone can hear me over the engine, and I know Phil’s looking ahead. The gaff is my microphone and I tilt my head to the side and back as I sing-shout the lyrics. “Like a true. Nature’s. Child. We were born. Born to be wild. We can climb so highhhh I never wanna diiiie. Born to be wi-i-i-i-ld. Born to be wi-i-i-i-ld.” My eyes are shut tight so I can envision my audience. Mermaids, perhaps? The fish are clearly not entertained. I put the gaff down and try another song.
Still seated, I use my arms to add depth and meaning: “Y-M-C-A it’s fun to stay at the Y-M-C-A-ay. They’ve got ev-eree thing that you need to enjoy, you can hang out with all—”
“Hey, Theresa,” from the loudspeaker. I jump. “You might want to head up to the bow.”
Shit. Did he hear me? Did he see my arms doing the YMCA thing? Am I in trouble?
I jump up and rush along the walk, past the wheelhouse.
It’s chillier up here than it was on the back deck and the taste and smell of the salt air ride the breeze created by the motion of the boat.
Phil joins me on the foredeck, then points to a spot, starboard of the bow. “Take a look.”
I see a shimmer beneath the water’s surface. My vision is focused on it, but it’s as if I’m looking out the corner of my eye. Shadows and light veil a flash of sinewy white. Dolphins. Four of them, right in front of the boat. I see one clearly now, black and white with a slender nose. It swims up, slaps its tail against the bow of the boat, surfaces, then dives. Another chases close behind, copying the path of the one before. Each one of them follows, and then they begin their boat-waltz again. Sleek creatures that sing to my heart and cause eddies of delight in my belly. They keep pace with the speed of the boat, never faltering in their beautiful dance. I lie down and cradle my belly against the wooden deck and stretch my head out beneath the bottom rail of the bow of the fishing boat, watching those dolphins play.
An hour later, the visit ends with the zing of a tuna line tightening. Fish On! I jump up and head aft as the afternoon tuna bite begins. We bring in almost three hundred albacore.
This is the day I become hooked on tuna fishing. The interlude becomes the center of my search for peace on boats. The sea becomes a place of possibility, of magic. It holds the chance for change, for a new and different life.
* * *
But the alchemy goes retrograde as we close in on Labor Day weekend. The stink of fish oil and diesel has replaced the sweet brine of a summer morning, and I want to go home.
I sense Phil standing behind me. “Fishing’s good. Best so far this season,” he offers.
“Glad to hear that.” I wonder what that shower’s gonna feel like.
“You’re probably making more money than you would be waiting tables.”
My instincts straighten up. He wants to keep fishing! Is he nuts?
He continues. “Maybe we can stay a few extra days. They probably won’t miss you too much.”
No! No! “Wow, Phil, I’d love to, but I promised Yvonne I’d be back. It’s going to be hard on them if I can’t make it.”
“We can get a message in. Maybe they can find someone to replace you. Fishing’s really good.”
Shit. I want a beer. I don’t want to be here at all.
“I don’t think so, Phil. I made a promise.” Finally, a promise that works in my favor.
Next day, we’re heading in. I’m hauling tuna on the back deck and most of the lines have a fish on them.
The radio chatter is constant, but I’ve learned to ignore it – it’s background noise. But this conversation’s got my attention. I can’t hear what Phil says, so it’s a one-sided talk.
“You’re leaving this bite? What are you crazy?”
“Crckkcrcklcrkc.” By now, I’m used to the noise of the release of the other boat’s mic, but I still don’t like the silence on my speaker as Phil talks on the wheelhouse mic.
“Did’ya try and get her in the sack and she wants to head in now?”
What? What are they talking about? Phil would never try anything like that. And even if he did? Yuck! He’s old enough to be my dad.”
Damn, I want to hear both sides. I want to hear Phil tell this guy off.
But I live with the thought that he must have told them off. I’m too embarrassed to ask him about it, and I guess he’s too embarrassed to tell me.
* * *
It’s a cloudless morning and we have no breeze. A lightly shaded ridge appears on the eastern horizon. As we near, there’s a smell. It’s familiar yet foreign, all at once. It’s comforting, but disconcerting. I think I’m imagining things, but I figure I’d better mention it to Phil.
Not sure how to approach it, and not wanting to feel foolish, I go to the wheelhouse and stand for a few minutes to see if maybe he’s smelled it and then I’ll be off the hook for imagining things or thinking something’s important that isn’t. Worst of all, it could be something I finally smell that I should have smelled all along.
But Phil only points out that we’ll be at the dock in a couple of hours.
So I dive in. “Hey. Um. I smell something odd on the deck?”
“Is it diesel?”
“No, it’s nothing mechanical.”
“Is it fishy? Salty?”
“No, it’s familiar, but I can’t place it.”
Phil leaves the wheel on autopilot and joins me on the deck. I hear him as he draws a nose full of air, “Ah.” Another whiff, as if confirming. “That’s land.”
I’ve never heard of such a thing, and if Phil weren’t Phil, I’d think he was pulling my leg. I inhale deeply through my nose, my eyes lightly closed. “Ah,” I repeat, as if I understand. But I don’t understand at all.
I continue to breathe the aroma, trying to pinpoint what it is. Then I finally catch it in my mind and heart rather than just my nose. It’s been too close to me to even recognize as a scent of its own. It’s earthy like the green and brown of the deep fir forests of the Pacific Northwest. I sense the slightest suggestion of shore pine needles. Maybe it’s my imagination that I can pull those scents out. It could be a blur of everything mushed together in one nebulous slurry, like when it rains for the first time in a long time and there’s the smell of pent-up oils springing out from a parched earth. Petrichor.
There’s also an undertone of an off scent that comes and goes. Like someone at the far end of a crowd peed their pants or something. The chemicals from the paper mill at Toledo? Too far, I think. The asphalt plant? Could be. Maybe it’s the exhaust from cars on Coast Highway. Whatever it is, I’d rather I couldn’t smell it. Overall though, the smell is welcome as a sign of familiarity. It reminds me that I’ll soon be able to get a hug. I’ll sleep in my own bed, and have the shower I haven’t had for two weeks. But most of all? I’ll get a cold Heineken.
* * *
In the bay, fishing boats are leaving and sailboats are flexing their sails, trying to catch the exhale of a breeze. Home. We motor by restaurants and fish plants, heading for the dock.
As we near the Valhalla’s slip, I throw the orange fenders out to protect the boat. As soon as they touch the wooden planking, I grab the line and jump on the dock.
Seconds after my feet hit the boards, vertigo rushes over me. Unbalanced, I miss the cleat I’m aiming for. I stand upright to get my bearings, but immediately have to bend over the water to puke. I’ve never heard of land-sick, but it’s as bad as seasick. I close my eyes and breathe one giant breath before I secure the boat to the dock.
Theresa Wisner is a writer because she loves it, but she’s fortunate enough also to love her regular job as a merchant marine. Ships and the water offer inspiration and settings for her stories. Sophie the German Shepherd generously allows Theresa and her husband to live with her in the Coast Range of Oregon.